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The Vikings' Thirst

Drunkenness in Scandinavia and Sweden

The Scandinavian Vikings were spoken of as early as in the 4th Century B.C. as the men from Thule. In ancient Greece, Pytheas, geographer and explorer, spoke of the comforting beverage of the Vikings, made of barley and honey. The Vikings’ ravages later became known, and the Vikings were often spoken of as intoxicated on mead in different historical tales. In connection to the Vikings’ visits to Kiev in the 1100s, it is known that large amounts of intoxicants occurred in connection to funerals.

The Old Town in Stockholm
The Old Town in Stockholm

In Stockholm city’s tänkeböcker, from the beginning of 1474, intimate insights to the population in the little capital are given. The tänkeböcker are books consisting of memorandum and protocols made at the Stockholm town hall court. There, it is made known that the gun powder maker, Tydecke, probably was one of the vodka pioneers in Sweden. He had produced vodka mainly to moisten the explosive gun powder, which he had mixed together of coal, sulphur and potassium nitrate. In connection with this, he discovered the possibility of vodka as an intoxicant.

In the 1490s, Kort Flaskedragare, had monopoly in producing and selling vodka in Stockholm. He was first to have monopoly of alcohol production in Sweden.

In the 1550s, the King of Sweden, Gustav Vasa, recommended that the soldiers be given aquavit, Rhine wine, mead and “pyssling” (a shot of an alcoholic beverage) in order to make them more “fearless” and “thoughtless”.

The Old Town in Stockholm
The Old Town in Stockholm

At the end of the 1740s, Eva De La Gardie propagated for the usage of potatoes to produce vodka, instead of using grain. Vodka was in 1754 considered medicine, dinner beverage and nourishment. Most employees on Swedish farms had the right to a certain amount of shots of liquor every day, which included women and children. Recommended drinking was: one shot after rising in the morning to clear throat and stomach, one with breakfast or as a “gök” (this is what the Swedes call a shot of vodka in their coffee) in the morning coffee, one good sip before lunch to increase the appetite, one shot after the meal, one afternoon shot, one before supper and one after, as a necessary measure to fall asleep. Seven shots a day were considered both moderate and even healthy. For travelling a distance of 70 kilometers (approx. 45 miles), the traveller was considered to need at least 5 liters (approx. 1.3 US gallons) of vodka for drinking on the trip.

1775 it was considered patriotic to drink vodka marked with three crowns, since that was the symbol of the Government’s vodka and the proceeds went to the Department of Defense. In 1776, home-distillery and import of alcohol were strongly prohibited by the Swedish king, Gustaf III, by the advice of Georg Gustaf Wrange. Gustaf Wrange also recommended the king to start up big industries of distilleries, of which many came to be located at the royal palaces. The prohibition for home-distillery brought on frequent inspections by the police at Swedish farms and homes, where large amounts of distilling apparatus were confiscated. The king himself ran a distillery at Gripsholm Castle for his own gain.

Home distillation apparatus

Home distillation apparatus

These measures, which prevented distillery for household requirements, were very unpopular and caused hatred among the Swedish people. In 1787, the Swedes were, once again, given back the right to distill for household use for a small fee to the state, which later nearly completely ceased at the end of the 19th Century.

This came to cause big alcohol problems among the population and at the Swedish Parliament in 1854, the state passed a new proposal which restricted the freedom of distillery to only two months a year, and regulated sales. In 1860, the state once again found the time right to prohibit home-distillery completely. Since then, the production has been regulated, even if home-distilling still takes place in large amounts in the Scandinavian households.

The distillery at Gripsholm Castle
The distillery at Gripsholm Castle

During the years 1914-1955, a system in Sweden called motbok (ration book) was used to restrain and lower the consumption of alcohol. The ration book was a booklet with room for stamps, where every purchase of alcohol at Systembolaget (state-controlled company for the sale of wines and spirits) was recorded to keep guard over and control the purchased ration. The average right of purchase per ration book and month was 1.82 liters of alcohol.